CALGARY, AB -- Akim Aliu's reaction to be being told that he had been recalled by the Calgary Flames nearly caused not one but two accidents yesterday.
The first came when Abbotsford Heat head coach informed him he would heading to Calgary on Wednesday afternoon. When he saw Ward's name come up on his phone as he was driving home from practice, he thought maybe there was a problem but, as it turns out, it was all good news.
The shock of being told about the recall was enough to render him unable to continue driving as he was road risk.
"He kind of beat around the bush and finally said I'm going to play my first National League Hockey game," Aliu said. "I had to pull over. I freaked out. I couldn't believe it. I thought it was a joke. I'm really excited."
The second near-miss came when he told his family he was going to play his first NHL game.
"I called my dad yesterday when I found out the news and he almost had a heart attack," he smiled. "He's here tonight and definitely a black guy that grew up in Nigeria never thought he'd be watching his son playing in the NHL."
Aliu's journey to the National Hockey League is far from conventional. Selected in the second round (56th overall) of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks, the Okene, Nigeria native thought he was one or two years away from being a regular in the NHL. That didn't turn out to be case.
Aliu has played for nine different teams in three different leagues - OHL, AHL & ECHL - since being drafted. He has had tumultuous relationships with a couple teams and spent the majority of last fall at his home Toronto after having a falling-out with the Winnipeg Jets during their training camp.
"It kind of bugs me that I've kind of wasted so much time but I've had a ton of people help me along the way. I've had a lot of mentors ... it's been a long three years, definitely, but I think I'm a better person for it. I'm just going to hold on to this a lot stronger."
Earlier this season, Aliu decided he needed a change. Knowing he didn't see eye-to-eye with the management in Winnipeg, he felt it would be best for both sides if he played elsewhere. In a very unorthodox move, he asked Flames general manager Jay Feaster if he would be willing to meet to talk about his situation and Feaster accepted the request.
The two met in Detroit when the Flames were in Motor City to face off against the Red Wings and Aliu made it known he would love to join the organization. The Jets ended up loaning him to the Heat and while the Flames loaned defenceman John Negrin to Winnipeg. On Jan. 30, after just over a month of playing in Abbotsford, the Flames decided they wanted Aliu to fully join the organization. His rights were traded for Negrin's, a move that has paid off for both teams.
The situation may seem touchy but Aliu had no issues discussing it.
"I'm not even ashamed to talk about it," Aliu said. "He (Feaster) listened to me, took in what I had to say and gave me an opportunity. I thank him for everything."
Aliu has put in 40 games with the Heat this season, primarily in a checking role, and has recorded 10 goals and 14 points in that span. The hulking winger has done everything Ward asked of him and has become one of the Heat's most dependable players.
"Plain and simple, he resurrected my career," Aliu said of Ward. "I was kind of down and out earlier this year and he gave me an opportunity.
"Wardo took me under his wing and mentored me. Definitely turned my game around a full 360. All the credit goes to him and the organization."
Aliu will play alongside Matt Stajan and Mike Cammalleri in his first NHL outing - something he is still trying to wrap his head around.
"When Coach Sutter was announcing the lines and he said I'm going to play on the right side with Stajan and Cammalleri, I thought he made a mistake there for a little bit.
"I grew up watching these guys play. Stajan was a Toronto Maple Leaf guy and I grew up watching him play, definitely one of my idols. And Cammalleri is one of the best snipers in the NHL. It's going to be an honour."
Knowing nerves may come into play, Aliu is planning on playing a very simple game tonight.
"Wardo told me to play my game - do what got me here. Be physical, use my skill and use my speed which I think is my strength. Hopefully I can contribute tonight."
When asked to try and sum up his emotions about his first stint in the NHL, Aliu was stymied for a bit before answering.
"It's been huge. I was born in Africa, grew up in Russia and definitely never thought six or seven years ago that I'd play in the National Hockey League. I started (playing) hockey at 12 years old. Things came to me naturally but there has been a lot of good people who have helped me along the way. It's just a dream come true and I never thought this would happen."